It goes without saying that Saturday night's playoff elimination at the hands of Real Salt Lake was an incredibly gut-wrenching defeat for the Fire. It's tough any time a team bows out of a competition due to penalty kicks, but this one was especially painful for Chicago - who has now been eliminated from the Eastern Conference Final in three consecutive seasons.
Though the Fire didn't play a horrible match, they certainly had some problems, beginning with their sluggish start. Despite having a charged up home crowd at their backs, the Fire let Real Salt Lake dictate the early tempo and the match's beginnings saw RSL spend far too much time in the Fire's half. The Fire's poor start kind of set the tone for the rest of the game - in which the Fire was never really able to get up to full speed.
The Fire players started stirring around the 25th minute, but the team (yet again...) fell victim to its season-long demon - the inability to finish chances. The Fire was done in this time in the 27th minute, when Brian McBride's near post flick went off the crossbar and C.J. Brown and Dasan Robinson failed to put their rebounded attempts into the back of the net. The chance was the best of the game for the Fire, who simply couldn't get the attack to 100% all night.
One of the major reasons for the Fire's offensive woes was the lack of movement off the ball. I can't tell you how many times I saw a Fire player dribbling at the Salt Lake defense with none of his fellow attackers making a run. Honestly it was sickening. It's pretty simple soccer to know that you have to make solid off-the-ball runs and the Fire attackers were not up to task in that aspect of the match.
A contributing factor to the Fire's lack of off-the-ball movement was the lack of speed up top. Simply put, Brian McBride and Cuauhtemoc Blanco don't have the wheels that they used to - and that was painfully obvious Saturday night. One particular instance that sticks out in my mind came in the 86th minute, when the Fire saw a short-lived 2 v 1 chance eliminated when a wide open McBride received the ball on the wing only to see the trailing Salt Lake defense catch up and end the chance.
The worst part of the aforementioned attacking problems was that they could've all been eliminated with some tactical changes from the Fire bench. One thing I would've liked to see Denis Hamlett do was to drop Blanco behind McBride in the attack. Putting Blanco in a supporting striker role seems to best serve his talents (just watch him next time he plays for Mexico...) and the Fire would've likely gotten more production from Temo had he played behind the front line.
I also would've have liked to see Patrick Nyarko come on earlier in the match. In my opinion, waiting until the 77th minute to put him in was a big mistake and I thought he should have come on for Chris Rolfe (who looked pretty ineffective throughout) or Marco Pappa (who looked to be losing his legs) around the 60th minute.
The final Fire missteps came in the penalty shootout. John Thorrington, Logan Pause and Brandon Prideaux all saw their penalty efforts saved by Nick Rimando and that sealed the Fire's fate. From my view, I didn't think Thorrington's effort was too bad - but Rimando came up with a big time stop on it. Unfortunately the same can't really be said about Logan and Brandon's shots, both of which were pretty weak. I kind of question Hamlett's choice to throw those players into the lineup before Justin Mapp - though Mapp did miss in the SuperLiga final shootout, so I can't complain about the decision too much.
There were some positives for the Fire from Saturday night though, and I don't want to sign off before giving some credit where it is due. I thought the Fire defense played an excellent game and they did well to keep RSL off the board. Jon Busch - despite his struggles in the shootout - also came up big, making several tremendous stops throughout the game.
All in all, it was an incredibly disappointing - and sad - night at Toyota Park. Hamlett and the players were absolutely devastated by the loss and it was tough to hear/watch Real Salt Lake's locker room celebrations knowing just how close the Fire was to pulling it off.